Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

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Change is hard – make not changing harder

October 6th, 2011

No ChoiceA week ago, I wrote about making it easier for people to make positive changes. Today’s post is about the other side of that idea: making it harder for people to make negative choices.

Sometimes making it easy isn’t enough. We’re stubborn, neurotic creatures, we humans, and we have a million reasons not to do the things that we know or believe are right. But we can nudge ourselves into better behaviours by changing our environment… and if you can’t make it easier to do it right, make it harder to do it wrong.

An example I like is “Trayless Tuesdays”. Some university and college dining halls are making meal trays unavailable on one or more days a week: students must carry their meal choices in their hands and/or go through the food line more than once. In addition to conserving dishwashing water, the approach results in less wasted food and potentially helps students make healthier food choices. It’s not always popular with students, of course, but it appears to have had positive effects.

Out off orderHere’s another approach. Ellinor Olander and Frank Eves recently did a study to determine whether fewer available elevators in a 12-story building led more people to use the stairs. They compared stair use on days when four elevators were running with use when only three were running. Sure enough, it turned out that significantly more workers used the stairs when fewer elevators were available, especially during busy times of day. Not a surprise, but something to think about.

You’ve almost certainly run across – or used – this technique before:

  • Stores that charge for plastic bags to encourage the use of cloth ones
  • Cars that won’t shift out of park unless the brake pedal is pressed
  • Software that keeps us from surfing the web until our work is finished
  • Legislation that prevents us from buying appealing but dangerous chemicals
  • Bartenders who collect our car keys before serving us a drink

Stopping other people from doing things we don’t like is a favourite human hobby, but it doesn’t always spring to mind when we’re trying to institute change. Can you make unwanted behaviours more difficult – for yourself or for others? A few examples:

  • Store tempting food at a neighbour’s house while you’re dieting.
  • Set up a rotating schedule if the women in your organization keep getting stuck with “female-identified” tasks like making coffee.
  • Set your lights and computer to automatically turn off at 10 PM if you want to get to bed earlier.
  • Keep the recycled paper beside the office printer – and the new paper at the other end of the building.

Personally, I’m thinking of storing my novels and puzzle books in the basement to keep myself from avoiding work. Knock loudly next time any of you stop by during work hours – I can’t always hear the doorbell from down there.

2 comments on 'Change is hard – make not changing harder'

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  1. Rachel

    6 Oct 11 at 5:14 pm

    Haha, yes! To get at my homebrew wine and beer, I have to go out of the house and down a flight of steps to the store room. This deterrent is more effective in bad weather…


    Carol Reply:

    Smart! The ways we manage ourselves…


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